WASHINGTON — Congress was warned seven years ago by its own office that handles sexual harassment complaints that lawmakers are not doing enough to prevent harassment on the Hill.
In regular reports to Congress since then, the Office of Compliance has urged Congress to mandate training for all offices, a recommendation that was never adopted.
Now, with high-profile sexual harassment allegations spreading across the country —including two sitting members being named in sexual misconduct cases — congressional leaders are finally promising to impose the mandatory harassment training.
“Finally, somebody’s hearing us,” said Susan Tsui Gundmann, executive director of the Office of Compliance, which handle harassment claims on Capitol Hill. “This is great that after seven years of making recommendations to Congress that we have been heard and they are undertaking the training. The training is the floor. What really needs to change is the culture, and that comes through time.”
The stepped-up efforts come with the growing number of allegations of sexual misconduct and assault by power players ranging from producer Harvey Weinstein, to CBS News host Charlie Rose.
Capitol Hill has been rocked by its own allegations of harassment by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and the suggestion by some lawmakers that there are other harassers among them. Conyers denied a report Tuesday by BuzzFeed that he made sexual advances on staff, but he acknowledged that he had settled a sexual harassment claim . BuzzFeed reported that the settlement was for more than $27,000 in 2015.
“Sometimes it does takes scandals of this nature to wake up any institution, not just Congress,” said Bradford Fitch, president & CEO of Congressional Management Foundation, which provides training to congressional staffers. “The journalistic community right now is dealing with its own demons so to speak, so it’s going to take a lot of these institutions time to wrestle with and reckon with these issues that are both institutional, personnel related and legal.”
Earlier this month, the Senate approved a resolution requiring mandatory training on sexual harassment prevention for members and their staff.
Last week the House Administration Committee held a hearing to review its policies on sexual harassment, including whether to require mandatory training.
Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., chairman of the committee, said there's bipartisan support for mandatory training. The change requires legislative action.
“For the good of this great institution of the House we can do better," he said. "We can set the standard."
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has led the push to require the training, said at the hearing she knew of at least two members of Congress who had been involved with sexual harassment.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., said she was told about a staffer who quit her job after a lawmaker asked her to bring work material to his house, then exposed himself.
Speier and Comstock declined to name the members.
The next day, Speier, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and others introduced a bipartisan bill that would require the mandatory training and reform the complaint process at the Office of Compliance. Some lawmakers said the complaint process can be confusing and long and doesn't do enough to protect alleged victims.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who told the administration committee to review the chamber's policies, has said he supports mandatory training, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has said she does as well. Ryan said the committee is also reviewing additional reforms to workplace policies.
“People who work in the House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or discrimination,” Ryan said in a statement Tuesday in response to the news about Conyers.
Speier said she hopes the House will act by the end of the year.
“The Speaker has acted swiftly," she told reporters last week. “I would expect that with a bipartisan, bicameral bill that we could move this is a rapid manner. This is not rocket science. This is just common sense, human resource policy.”
Each congressional office operates as a separate employer, but under the Speier/Gillibrand bill, members of Congress and their staff would be required to undergo sexual harassment training. Victims who report harassment would also have “whistleblower" protections.
If a member of Congress settles a harassment claim, that member would have to repay the cost out of their own pockets. Currently, the Office of Compliance makes payouts from the U.S. Treasury. And the new legislation would require that if there is a settlement, the office would be identified and the amount of the settlement will be posted on a public website.
Meanwhile, the Office of Compliance has been flooded with requests for training in recent weeks, not only from congressional offices, but committee offices, Grundmann said.
The office was created in 1995 to enforce workforce protections in Congress, which had previously been exempt from most labor and accessibility laws.
The 20-person office usually does two in-person training sessions a day. Grundmann said the office is ramping up to do as many as it can.
“This is all hands-on deck,” she said. “The requests are constant … They want to do it before they’re required to do. That’s a great thing that we support.”
Grundmann said the office has submitted a request to Congress for more staff because, “we have been flatlined for the last three years."
Fitch said Congress needs to make sure it has “effective training.”
“There’s sexual harassment training designed to protect the employer and there’s sexual harassment training designed to protect the employee," he said. “The House has to decide which kind it wants to offer. ... Sometimes training in large bureaucracies becomes a check-a-box training.
“It doesn’t sound like the people trying to push for change on Capitol Hill want to see check-a-box training,” he said. “It does not sound like they want to put out a press release and move on.”